10 of the oldest and most iconic gay bars in the US

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How many of these historic venues have you visited or even heard about?

The White Horse Inn – Oakland

 

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The White Horse Inn in Oakland, California, claims to be the oldest, continually operating gay bar in the US. It was officially opened in 1933 and has been attracting gay custom since around that time. In fact, its history might go back even further, but records were not kept during Prohibition.

It began to get a word-of-mouth reputation as someone for queer people to meet in the 1940s, although to the general public, it presented itself as just another bar. Regulars of yore remember a surprisingly classy venue, more like a private club or lounge than the dive bar they may have first been expecting. It’s still going today (albeit temporarily closed in line with COVID restrictions). It can be found on the corner of 66th Street and Telegraph, Oakland.

Cafe Lafitte in Exile – New Orleans

 

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Like the White Horse in Oakland, Louisiana’s Cafe Lafitte In Exile also stakes a claim as the oldest gay bar in the US still in operation. It also dates back to the end of Prohibition in 1933 but may have been operating unofficially before that time. It can be found in New Orleans’ historic French Quarter. Past regulars are said to have included Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams whenever they visited the city.

It features both upstairs and downstairs bars (the upstairs Balcony Bar is a more upscale, cocktail lounge), both with outdoor seating offering a view of the famous Bourbon Street. Check out the venue’s official website for a virtual tour of the interior.

Atlantic House – Provincetown

 

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It’s impossible to say how long gay people have favored this Cape Cod venue as a watering hole, but it’s been at least 60 years and probably several decades longer. Provincetown has been attracting an LGBTQ crowd since the start of the 20th century when it became a popular retreat for artists and writers. This particular building, used as a Post Office and stagecoach stop in the 1800s, was turned into a hotel in 1871. It became a more openly-gay establishment in the 1950s. The A-House, as it’s simply known, continues today, offering a dance club, ‘Little Bar’ and ‘Macho Bar’.

Twin Peaks Tavern – San Francisco

Twin Peaks in San Francisco
Twin Peaks in San Francisco (Photo: GoFundMe)

Twin Peaks Tavern, in the heart of the Castro, is one of the city’s most famous gay bars and has a history stretching back almost 50 years.

It opened in 1935 but was taken over by lesbian friends and relaunched in 1972. Mary Ellen Cunha and Peggy Forster did something radical: they kept the venue’s large windows uncovered, making Twin Peaks the first gay bar in the US to have big, clear windows, allowing people to see in from the street. Previously, gay bars were boarded up or hidden behind discreet doors.

 

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Twin Peaks Tavern, directly across from the Castro Muni Station, was granted historic landmark status by the city’s Board of Supervisors in 2013. It’s currently closed, in line with COVID restrictions, and could really do with some help. It’s set up a GoFundMe to ensure its survival.

Wild Side West – San Francisco

 

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Wild Side West has been gay-owned since its launch as ‘Wild Side’ in Oakland in 1962, catering predominantly to the lesbian community. It relocated in 1964 to Broadway in San Francisco, changing its name to Wild Side West in the process, and then to its current location in Bernal Heights in 1976. Original owners Pat Ramseyer and Nancy White have passed on, but it remains a popular, gay community space, with a distinctive, enchanting garden.

The Hole In The Wall – San Diego

 

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This cozy, California dive bar has a history going back to the 1920s. It was a speakeasy during Prohibition and began to earn itself a reputation as a gay-friendly hangout in the 1940s. The Hole In The Wall now attracts a mixed crowd with its karaoke, trivia nights, and showcases for singer-songwriters. Its Sunday Funday sessions remain legendary. It temporarily closed down on December 7 because of COVID restrictions but hopes to be back very soon.

The Rail – San Diego

 

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Another of the longest-running gay bars in the whole country, The Rail (formerly The Brass Rail) has a history dating back to 1934. It first opened in Downtown’s historic Orpheum Theatre building, before relocating to Hillcrest in the early 1960s. It offers more of a nightclub experience in the evenings, but with food and drink and more of a lounge vibe during the day. It’s temporarily closed because of COVID but hopes to be back soon.

Oil Can Harry’s – Los Angeles

 

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Oil Can Harry’s has been welcoming gay men through its doors – particularly leather men and cowboy lovers – since 1968. You’ll find it in San Fernando Valley, away from West Hollywood. The venue is currently closed because of COVID restrictions. The building has been on the market for sale. However, the management of Oil Can Harry’s says they’re looking forward to reopening soon and working with any new landlords to extend their lease. The bar is a regular home to the LA Wranglers line-dancing club.

Julius – New York City

Julius bar in NYC
Julius in New York City (Photo: Facebook)

Julius is believed to be the oldest, continually operating gay bar in New York City. The venue opened in 1867. It began to get a reputation as a gay hangout in the 1950s, a reputation its management at the time took steps to try and quell by sometimes refusing to serve people who they knew to be gay. This led to a famous “sip-in” protest in 1966, which led to a change in the local liquor laws that had previously made bars fearful of serving openly gay people. Since that time, it has been one of the best-known, best-loved LGBTQ bars in NYC.

It was used as a location in the original 1978 movie version of The Boys In The Band and also featured prominently in the 2018 movie Can You Ever Forgive Me? The bar also has a GoFundMe running to help it get through the pandemic.

The Stonewall Inn – New York City

The Stonewall Inn in New York City
The Stonewall Inn in New York City (Photo: David Hudson)

Stonewall is probably the most famous gay bar in the world. The venue had existed for several decades, mainly as a restaurant, when it was taken over by a Mafia mobster in 1967 and relaunched as a gay bar. On a hot June night in 1969, it was raided by police, and patrons famously fought back, leading to several nights of protests and rioting. The uprising helped advance the modern LGBTQ rights movement and the birth of Pride festivals worldwide.

Madonna, Taylor Swift, and Joe Biden are among those who have visited the bar – now under new owners – in recent years to pay tribute to its place in gay history. The 2020 pandemic has had a massive impact on the Stonewall as a business, but a successful GoFundMe campaign has succeeded in raising over $300,000 to guarantee it should be around for some time to come.

Related: The iconic venues that won’t be returning after COVID-19